Forty years ago, on a spring night in April 1983, a thief bypassed security at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, entering the building under the cover of darkness. The burglar stole 106 rare clocks worth tens of millions of dollars, then vanished without a trace.
The crime had all the elements of a high-stakes drama: a mysterious theft, befuddled investigators, a romance that spanned decades and outlasted a prison sentence, and two bequeathments of valuable timepieces (among them a pocket watch commissioned for Marie Antoinette).
In the two decades following the theft, authorities made little progress on the investigation. The heist seemed like a mystery that would never be solved—until a deathbed confession by a career criminal led to the recovery of almost all of the missing timepieces.
Roughly the same size as New Jersey, Israel has more museums per capita than any other country in the world. The Israel Museum, Bible Lands and the Museum of the Jewish People are three of the country’s most prominent cultural institutions. But Israel also houses hundreds of smaller specialized museums: a museum of taxation, a museum of Circassian culture, a museum commemorating a clandestine ammunition factory built in 1945, a museum featuring famous figures sculpted in edible marzipan, a museum of mechanical music and even a museum dedicated to paddleball.
Amid this tapestry of Israeli museums is the Museum for Islamic Art, which opened in 1974. It boasts a collection of some 4,000 objects, including jewelry, pottery, rugs, weapons and Qurans, and it welcomes tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Perhaps the most unique feature of a museum otherwise dedicated to Islamic art is its collection of rare and valuable watches. The story of how this treasure trove—one of the “three rarest clock collections in the world,” according to the museum—came together is key to understanding both why it was targeted and how its prized contents were eventually returned.
Vera Frances Bryce Salomons—a British Jewish aristocrat, nurse and philanthropist, as well as a grandniece of the first Jewish lord mayor of London—founded the museum in the 1960s in hopes of fostering mutual understanding between Jews and Arabs. An early benefactor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she’d studied under Leo Aryeh Mayer, then-head of the university’s Islamic art department (and the future namesake of the museum). Mayer’s personal collection formed the core of the museum’s initial holdings.
After making some additions to the nascent collection herself, Salomons entrusted acquisitions to Richard Ettinghausen, a historian of Islamic art who served as chief curator at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery.
Construction of the museum started in 1965. Salomons, who died in 1969 at age 81, didn’t live to see its completion. But her vision guided its design: In addition to six permanent galleries dedicated to Islamic art and changing exhibitions of contemporary art, Salomons showcased a collection of some 200 clocks inherited from her father, David Lionel Salomons. The cache—which has no connections to Islamic art—features pendulum clocks, self-winding clocks, decorative watches, grandfather clocks and other rare specimens.
Highlights of the collection included 55 clocks crafted by famed horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, among them a calendar- and thermometer-equipped watch made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister. Known as the father of modern watchmaking, Breguet is credited with an array of innovations, among them the tourbillon, an addition to watch mechanisms that counteracts the pull of gravity and makes timekeeping more accurate.
Breguet was also the mastermind behind the gem of Salomons’ collection: a clock commissioned for Marie Antoinette, supposedly by a guard who’d fallen in love with the doomed French queen. The object was so mechanically complex that it was only completed in 1827, 34 years after Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793 and 4 years after Breguet’s own death. Valued at $30 million, the clock comprises 823 parts made of gold, platinum and sapphires.
Staff realized the museum had been burglarized after arriving for work the morning of April 17, 1983. As Rachel Hasson, then the artistic director of the museum, told the Telegraph in 2009, “It was shocking. On the floor were the glass panels and the locks of the showcases. Everywhere lay remnants of packing materials, tape and cardboard; there were empty Coca-Cola bottles, cables and wires.”
The 106 stolen timepieces included the Marie Antoinette clock, a pistol-shaped 19th-century clock and a “Sympathique” clock designed by Breguet. Though the museum’s watch collection was insured for $700,000, its actual value was significantly higher. In addition to the clocks, the thief took several paintings and other artifacts.
The police were mystified. Two guards had been monitoring the museum the night of the theft, but they claimed to have been asleep during the break-in. The museum’s alarm system was reportedly broken. “The concept of using advanced security measures to secure artwork in Israel was still in its infancy at the time,” Jenya Frumin, a senior tour guide at the museum, told the Jerusalem Post last year.
Authorities offered a $2 million reward for the return of the stolen clocks. But local police, Interpol, private detectives and even Mossad (Israel’s national intelligence agency) all searched in vain.
“Over the years, we received anonymous calls and heard many rumors that the watches had been found, but they all amounted to nothing,” Hasson told the Financial Times in 2009. “Eventually our search was reduced to looking through … auction catalogs to see if pieces were appearing in sales. It was very painful for me, but at some point, I thought it was a lost cause.”
For the next 25 years, the museum cases that had held the watches stood empty, a testament to the unsolved burglary.
In 2004, a notorious Israeli criminal named Naaman Diller (also known as Naaman Lidor) died of cancer.
Two years later, in August 2006, a Tel Aviv arts dealer informed museum staff that he’d been asked to perform a valuation of clocks he recognized as part of the Salomons collection. A few days later, Hasson received a phone call from a lawyer representing an anonymous woman who claimed to possess 39 of the stolen clocks, including the Marie Antoinette watch. She would return them to the museum—for a price—but she wanted anonymity and no police involvement.
After negotiating with the lawyer, the museum agreed to pay $35,000 for the timepieces’ safe return. The deal stayed under wraps for more than a year, but in November 2007, news of the clocks’ reemergence surfaced in the Israeli media. Authorities started investigating, examining the recovered clocks and interrogating the lawyer who’d negotiated the sale. Eventually, the trail of clues led detectives to Los Angeles, where they identified the woman who’d returned the clocks as Israeli expatriate Nili Shamrat.
Shamrat was Diller’s widow. Her husband had apparently confessed to the heist on his deathbed and left the stolen goods to her in his will.
Israeli police were already familiar with Diller. A “master forger and resourceful thief” who was “renowned for his ability to crawl into tight spaces,” according to Pete Stegemeyer’s book Heist, he was best known for a 1967 bank robbery in Tel Aviv. Diller spent five months digging an underground tunnel to the bank, where he carefully cracked open safe-deposit boxes and stole the most valuable loot.
Even the detectives tasked with taking Diller down expressed grudging admiration for him. “He was a legendary robber. He was very different, very intelligent, and had a unique style,” Oded Yaniv, one of the investigators who broke the clock case, told the Associated Press in 2008. “We are all disappointed that we don’t have the chance to sit and talk to him and investigate him. We feel like we missed out on that.”
Authorities had considered Diller an initial suspect in the museum heist, but they eliminated him because his passport showed he was out of the country at the time of the heist. Investigators later found out that Diller fabricated this alibi, forging the necessary documentation to avoid detection.
Later, police pieced together how the infamous robber had probably masterminded the heist. They believe Diller cased the museum ahead of time, noting the broken alarm and where the security guards were situated. He used a tool to bend the bars on a back window, then crawled into the building with the help of a rope ladder. Masking his movements by parking his car in front of the window, he removed the timepieces that were small enough to fit through the window and dismantled some of the larger items.
According to police and her own testimony, Shamrat didn’t know about Diller’s involvement in the theft until much later. The pair met in Tel Aviv in 1970 and dated until Diller was sent to prison in 1972, around the same time that Shamrat relocated to Los Angeles. The couple reconnected in the late 1980s and wed in 2003, a year before Diller’s death.
When detectives executed a search warrant at Shamrat’s home in the Tarzana neighborhood of Los Angeles in May 2008, they found contraband clocks, three 18th-century oil paintings and an antique Latin manuscript, all of which had been stolen from the museum. They also found display placards from a museum exhibition.
The Tarzana search led police to safety deposit boxes around the world. Diller had sold just 3 of the 106 stolen clocks, stashing the rest everywhere from Tel Aviv to Munich to Basel to Paris to Los Angeles.
“Luckily for us, Diller was so passionate about the watches that he kept each of the tiny pieces in perfect condition,” Hasson told the Financial Times in 2009. “We found meticulous notes Diller wrote about each component and mechanism … on scraps of paper, toilet paper and old boxes. He could have broken down the less recognizable parts of the watches to sell them, but he never did.”
Authorities eventually found 96 of the 106 stolen timepieces. (The fate of the other clocks remains unknown.) In July 2009, the recovered items went back on view at the museum—this time in a supposedly theft-proof walk-in safe.
In March 2010, Shamrat, who’d been convicted of receiving stolen property by a California court, was sentenced to five years of probation and 300 hours of community service. She lost her job as a teacher at a Jewish high school as a result of the scandal but maintained that she’d only learned of her husband’s crimes when he confessed to them on his deathbed.
Unable to question Diller, authorities can only speculate what motivated him to burgle the museum. “We believe that he didn’t carry out the theft for the money but instead for the thrill of it,” Yaniv told the Jerusalem Post last year. “He yearned to succeed in doing the impossible, to achieve an incredible feat. … He loved clocks, and he also loved carrying out heists.”